June 11, 2018

Tuesday - No Blog
I have a bunch of work being done on my house early on Tuesday morning, and a horde of things on my todo list to get done before I go out of town Thursday morning for 3.5 weeks. So no blog on Tuesday. See you on Wednesday! That, alas, will be my last blog for 3.5 weeks, where I'll be at a family gathering for three days in Eugene, OR; and then three weeks in Las Vegas - the World Veterans (one week); a one-week writing/reading "vacation" (though I'll also be helping to run a 3-day mini-camp before the Nationals); and then the USA Nationals.

Tip of the Week
How to Make Your Strengths Stronger with Serve and Receive.

What Makes Tomokazu Harimoto So Good
The Japanese whiz kid won't turn 15 until June 27, and yet he just won the Japan Open as a 14-year-old. This wasn't his first Pro Tour win - he won the Czech Open last year two months after turning 14. But that time he beat Hugo Calderano of Brazil in the semifinals and Timo Boll of Germany in the final. While beating Boll was an incredible victory for Harimoto, this one just seemed different as he beat world #2 (and really, the best player in the world) Ma Long in the quarterfinals, world #8 Lee Sangsu in the semifinals, and in the final won 13-11 in the seventh against Zhang Jike, who seems nearly back to his old form. (See segment below on Japan Open for more info.)

Before this tournament, Harimoto was ranked #10 in the world, and that seemed accurate. Now? I'd say he's firmly proven that he can compete with the very best. Does this mean he's better than Ma Long? No - I'd still bet on Ma Long next time out. But I think Harimoto should legitimately be #3 or #4 in the world. At this point, he's on a par with Ovcharov, and breathing down the necks of Ma Long and Fan Zhendong.

I suspect that part of this is because of the removal of Liu Guoliang as head coach last year of the Chinese team. He was great at preparing players for each event and each match. There's a really good chance that he would have better prepared Ma and Zhang for Harimoto. This type of thing makes a big difference. But we'll never really know, will we? We just know that while Liu was coach, the Chinese dominated and beat all challengers. As soon as he left, the elderly Timo Boll and Ovtcharov began to challenge beat them, and now a 14-year-old is beating them.

Being the youngest to win a Pro Tour Event isn't a guarantee of great success. Before Harimoto broke his record, the youngest male Pro Tour winner was China's Yu Ziyang, who won the 2014 Japan Open at age 16. Yet his highest world ranking ever was #20, and he's currently listed as #372 (mostly due to inactivity). But Harimoto seems a lot higher in level than Yu was, so barring injuries or unforeseen happenings, I can't see Harimoto not becoming the dominating best in the world in the next few years.

Harimoto wasn't the only Japanese player to upset the Chinese - Mima Ito won Women's Singles. See Japan Open below and article on Japanese Teenagers.

So, how is Harimoto at age 14 able to compete and win against the world's best? I watched videos of his matches at the Japan Open, and especially against Ma Long. Here are the quarterfinals, semifinals, and final of the Japan Open for Harimoto.

Here are six things he does about as well or better than anyone else.

  1. Fighting spirit and screams between points
    While I don't really like the spectacle of a 14-year-old on the world stage screaming like a banshee every time he wins a point, I understand why it happens and why it helps him play. There's a lot of tension and pressure in these matches, and the screams help vent that tension. As players get older, they learn to control this, which is why most of the best players in the world in most sports don't scream as much, only perhaps at key points. But for a kid, it really helps to release tension in this way. It also helps in focusing, which is also easier as one gets older. And lastly, it does distract and irritate opponents, which can affect their play. So whether we like the screaming or not, we have to understand that they are part of what makes Harimoto so good. It's likely that as he gets older he'll quiet down, but not necessarily. 
  2. Backhand banana flip. Especially in returning serves he does this as well as anyone on the planet. The result is he can take the initiative when receiving as well or better than just about anyone. A key point - develop this shot early. Most coaches don't teach this shot until the player is relatively advanced, and then he's years behind a player like Harimoto who was probably trained on this shot early on. 
  3. Off-bounce backhand loop. I'm starting to suspect he does this better than anyone, and he makes it look easy. What makes the shot so strong is the combination of quickness, speed, topspin, and placement. Every time he's in a topspin rally he's a threat to end the point with one of these off-bounce shots. Others may have more power on it, but I'm not sure if anyone combines the best of every aspect of this shot. Here's the last point of his match with Ma Long - see how he rips a backhand off-the-bounce to Ma Long's middle, who can barely even react to it. (The shot itself was set up by a banana backhand flip.) Coaches should study the stroke and how he generates so much power with such a short, quick stroke - in some ways reminiscent of Bruce Lee's famous short punches. It's actually easy to copy the stroke without the ball (after watching Hashimoto do it) - the key is training this type of backhand until you can do it in live rallies like he can. 
  4. Attacking middle and then corners. He's extremely good at going after opponent's middles, i.e. their playing elbows, with his extremely quick topspins, and then following up with winners to the corners. Over and over he did this with Ma Long and others. Often the first shot to the middle won the point outright. (See last point of match with Ma Long above.) A key point is that when he went to the middle, he did so with very quick, off-bounce shots. 
  5. Forehand without backing up. He doesn't nearly have the power of Ma Long or Fan Zhendong (yet), but his forehand is quicker, allowing him to take nearly every ball without backing up. Off a hard-hit shot I'd guess he takes the ball on average a full foot quicker than Ma or Fan. This puts tremendous time pressure on opponents, and makes his placement even more effective as players struggle to cover for these quick, aggressive topspins right at their elbow or at wide angles. On most shots, he can still loop at full power, but when rushed, he sacrifices speed for quickness and angles. 
  6. Better hidden serve technique. At the higher levels, most players hide their serve, either over and over, or sparingly to catch opponents off guard. I've blogged about this many times, and consider it a travesty on our sport that we allow such cheating, but it's a reality, and Harimoto would have great difficulty competing at this level if he didn't do it as well. But he's one of the best at it as he shows the ball right up until nearly contact, fooling spectators, umpires, and even opponents into thinking the ball isn't hidden. But just as he's contacting the ball his head thrusts out just enough to barely hide (or sometimes not, to keep receivers guessing) contact, and with a quick, hidden motion, he can change the spin or give no-spin, and opponents have difficulty figuring out what the racket was doing right at contact, often getting fooled by what it was doing a split second before or after. 

Since I wrote about Harimoto's hidden serve, let's take a look at it, as well as Ma Long's, since both illegally hide the serve. Here are two sequences from their quarterfinal match. (It was tricky finding good sequences at the right angle. Now I wish I'd just used the first serve Harimoto did on the far side, this one, where he does the same subtle hiding as in the one below.) Note how Harimoto keeps the ball visible until just before contact, and only barely hides it? Then compare that with Ma Long. Both hide the ball by a last-second forward thrust of their head, but the ball goes way behind Ma Long's head so the ball obviously disappears. Before, I would have said Ma Long's hidden serve was subtle, as he waits until the last second before thrusting the head forward, making it impossible for umpires to see if the ball was visible or not. But Harimoto seems to take it to a new level, making it difficult even for the opponent to tell if the ball was hidden at contact as there's only that split second where the ball is hidden (or sometimes not, to keep receivers guessing), as opposed to Ma Long, where the ball so clearly goes behind his head. (I only did two photos for Ma Long as no more is needed to show how much more his serve goes behind his head.)


Ma Long:

Japan Open
Here's the home page for the event, which ended yesterday in Kitakyushu, JPN, June 8-10. Here are some key articles - there are many more in their News section. Results are linked from the Information section.

Butterfly Training Tips With Brian Pace – featuring Shigang Yang: Forehand Flip With Multi-ball Training
Here's the article and video (1:20).

How to Improve Rotation in Topspin
Here's the video (34 sec) from the European Table Tennis Union.

New from EmRatThich

Interview with Iva Laginja, 2018 Maryland State Women’s Singles Champion
Here's the interview by Ayan Bagchi. "Ms. Iva Laginja is a 25-year-old Croatian born Austrian who moved to Baltimore, MD eight months ago to work at the Space Telescope Science Institute. She has recently completed her Master’s degree in Astronomy and Instrumentation from Leiden University (Netherlands) and two undergraduate degrees in Astronomy and Physics from the University of Vienna (Austria)."

ITTF World Junior Circuit - Where is USA?
Here's the article by Bruce Liu. While I believe it was the rise of full-time training centers that led to the rise of USA's juniors - you can't compete with the full-time training overseas if all you mostly have part-time players training in part-time clubs, which was the USA reality until full-time clubs began popping up, mostly in the last 10-15 years - he makes a good point that bringing the World Junior Championships or a similar event great spurs table tennis activity, as he explains.

Australia and United States Combine, Turn Tables on China
Here's the ITTF article on the 2018 Cook Islands Junior and Cadet Open in Rarotonga.

Table Tennis Superstars | 10 & 12-Year-Old Brothers
Here's the video (7:14) featuring Sid and Nandan Naresh. "12-year-old Sid Naresh and his 10 year-old brother, Nandan, already have their eyes set on playing professional table tennis."

2018 China Open: Ball Kids
Here's the video (58 sec).

Don’t Suffer from the Same Nightmare as Timo Boll!
Here's the video (1:50).

Romantic Dinner Trick Shots
Here's the video (2:01) from Pongfinity.

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